Written by Cathy Buckley
James E. Trimble
“A Pennsylvania Republican in the Hill Country of North Louisiana”
It was the winter of 1859 when 25 year old James E. Trimble moved to Farmerville, Louisiana. The Pennsylvania born Trimble had spent the previous year in Washington, Arkansas as Assistant Principal of the Washington Academy. He moved to Farmerville to serve as Principal of the Union Male and Female Institute. Serving with Trimble on the faculty of the school were his wife Laura and his sister Albina.
Trimble remained on the faculty of the school until the start of the Civil War when nearly all schools in the parish closed. After the war the school reopened and operated until financial problems forced a judgment against the school forcing the sale of the school and property to J.E. Trimble and Daniel Stein.
During the war Trimble served on the staff of General Price but did not take part in any battles. The General was in charge of engineering activities in the defense of the country between Vicksburg and Monroe. A biographical statement published by Williams College in Massachusetts, from which Trimble graduated in 1857 quotes Trimble as saying “I felt compelled to go into military service even though I was a Union man before, throughout and since the war.” Trimble states in this biography that he was appointed to serve as an engineer during the war. The college added to his biography that his “sympathies were with the Yankees and may have kept Trimble from advancing in rank.”
In 1868 Trimble was called as a witness in illegal activities that may have occurred in Union Parish during the election to elect the President and several state officers. Under oath Trimble made these statements: “I was acting as military engineer west of the Mississippi as a clerk for some time. I suppose for some time that I was a military officer but found out afterwards I was a civilian in charge of some of the military”.
After the war Trimble returned to Farmerville and began his own law practice. He had been awarded a Doctorate of Law by Mt. Lebanon University in Bienville Parish in 1859.
His political affiliation was as a Republican. He was the only registered Republican in Union Parish in 1868 and cast the only vote in the parish for U.S. Grant as President. As a staunch Republican he was often outspoken in his beliefs and was able to put his debating skills learned in college to good use in many debates over local, state and national politics.
Trimble was described by many as a “ Radical Republican” a claim he denied stating he was a “Louisianaian by adoption and I expect to make my home where my interest have brought me and as a citizen of Louisiana I wish to see her destinies controlled by intelligence …therefore I am none of them (Radical Republicans)”.
In the election of 1872 Trimble wrote a letter to Grant which appeared in the Papers of U.S. Grant published by the Southern Illinois University Press. In this letter Trimble related how he had cast the only vote for Grant in 1868 but in the most recent election he was responsible for bringing 489 voters for Grant.
It was Trimble’s political opinions and affiliation that would lead to his appearance on several occasions at Congressional committees on illegal voting practices in Union Parish. During the first of these in 1868 Trimble testified for the Republicans and T.C. Lewis and William Mims testified for the Democrats. Mims was editor of the Union Record a Democratic paper printed in Union Parish. Mims was very vocal in his testimony stating that Trimble was unpopular in the parish. When asked if this was due to the fact that Trimble had voted for Grant, Mims replied “that is was his meddlesome disposition and impracticability that makes him unpopular along with his uncompromising mind”. Mims added that Trimble “would not move one step to conciliate any many living and if a Democrat would be no more than he is, unless he changed his disposition”.
In spite of these opinions from the Democrats, Trimble was appointed District Attorney Pro Tempore in 1869. In 1870 he was appointed Postmaster and in 1871 began his first of two terms on the Union Parish School Board.
In 1872 Trimble ran for the position of District Judge against the incumbent judge from Claiborne Parish. Trimble carried every parish except Union with his opponent earning 151 more votes. The election saw irregularities across the state and when the investigation into the results was over some of the votes against Trimble were thrown out resulting in his election as the new District Judge for Union, Lincoln and Claiborne parishes.
It was in this position as Judge that Trimble drew statewide and national attention. After the war federal troops had been stationed in several North Louisiana parishes. One such troop led by Lieutenant B.H. Hodgson assisted in the arrest of several prominent citizens of Lincoln and Claiborne parishes.
Trimble had issued a writ of habeas corpus in the matter which was ignored by Hodgson who arrested the citizens and hauled them into jail in Vienna, Louisiana. Hodgson sent word to Trimble that he could “go to hell and that the next time he can send three papers because I would like one to shave with, one to light my pipe and one to use when I go to the privy”.
In addition Hodgson intimidated his prisoners with his handgun and tore down the telegraph wires which led out of Vienna so that no further communication could be made. Trimble ordered the arrest of Hodgson and the town marshal of Vienna and sentenced each to ten days in jail and a fine of $100.
Trimble received much praise for his actions in this matter. He later stated that he felt Hodgson had “exceeded all authority and had made illegal and improper arrests” leading to his offending the court and holding it in contempt.
Hodgson was brought before a court martial and received only a reprimand for his part in the matter and was reassigned to his duties with the 7th Cavalry Division. His return was in 1876 at the start of the Little Big Horn Campaign. Hodgson would lose his life there with the rest of Custer’s unit.
The investigation into this matter and the election of the same year by the military led to a statement by the investigating officer describing Trimble as “a respected gentleman and a man of great dignity of character and general intelligence. Judge Trimble is a Republican but will not sanction any attempt to deprive Democrats of any legal majority in the parish.” The Lafayette Advertiser said of this incident that “had it not been for the strong arm of the law in the hands of a strong judge Trimble, the U.S. Marshals would have run over the whole country and arrested and incarcerated just whom they pleased.
By 1878 it was clear that Trimble’s sympathies did not lie with the Republican leadership or the Radical Republicans of Louisiana. This fact was made clear when Trimble ran as an Independent candidate against E.M. Graham a popular Democrat with Union Parish roots. Graham defeated Trimble thus ending his career as a judge.
It was also in 1878 that Captain J.M. Rabun purchased the press and materials of the Bastrop Republican and moved the paper to Farmerville under the name of the Farmerville Gazette. By 1880 Trimble was listed with Rabun as editor and proprietor.
The Gazette was advertised as the “People’s Paper” and was heavy on the side of Trimble’s political views although Trimble stated the paper “belongs to no ring or faction and is fearless in its criticism of public officials and their acts.”
In 1885 Trimble’s old political rival, T.C. Lewis launched the Home Advocate. It was not long before both were using their newspapers to publish their political opinions and the animosity between the two became even stronger. The two editors launched into a battle of words that escalated each week. Numerous newspapers across the state weighed in on the battle between the two with the Louisiana Democrat published in Alexandria making the statement “if the Farmerville editors continue wrangling and writing against each other, the folks in that quarter of Louisiana will be treated to a dose of pistols and coffee for two.”
The battle went forward with Trimble describing Lewis as a “cowardly whelp . . . a dastard coward and craven and I shall take no further notice of you through the columns of a paper”. In 1887 one of Lewis’s friends and fellow member of the democratic central committee for the parish invited the wrath of Trimble. James A. Ramsey was a young lawyer and former District Attorney for Union Parish and at a mass meeting held in Union Parish made some insinuations against Trimble.
Ramsey was an ardent and active supporter of Nicholls for Governor while Trimble was a supporter of McEnery. Ramsey accused Trimble of using his paper to make injurious statements about Nicholls and refusing to publish a correction when proof of their falsity was presented. Trimble then responded with an editorial making statements of a personal nature against Ramsey. Ramsey considered these an attack on his moral character.
Ramsey became deeply angered and troubled by these remarks and wrote several letters to his father in which he made reference to the trouble with Trimble. In November of 1887 Ramsey wrote to his father that he was going to take his parents advice and “have no personal altercation with Trimble.” He indicated to his father that he was going to file a suit for libel and slander against Trimble for damages done to him by the article printed in Trimble’s paper.
Three days later Ramsey wrote a letter to his friend, E.M. Graham in which he stated “never in all my life have I been so tempted to do a dishonorable act and one that would be a violation of both law and morals”. The letter continued with Ramsey stating “I have no apology to make for my action in not going ahead and killing Trimble…to have gone and flailed him with a stick or my fist would have been an act that I could not have afterwards justified and because he is an older man and physically a wreck, there are times when he is not able to walk to his office. He cannot live long and has more the appearance of a dead man moving about than he has of a man capable of a physical contest. I have a desire to bring suit against the owners and publishers of the paper…this is the only way I know to stop it unless I do kill some of them”.
Ramsey also had a card printed which was signed by him as well as some of his friends attesting to his moral character and integrity and with the statement that “I am prevented from using the duel as a method of settling this disagreement with Trimble, because I am religiously opposed to settling disputes in this manner”.
Several other letters indicate that Ramsey felt the Lord had kept him from doing something directed toward Trimble that he should not do. One can conclude from reading Ramsey’s letters that he was certainly angry enough to kill Trimble but for personal reasons could not make up his mind to do so.
Years of rancor between Trimble and his friends and Lewis and his supporters came to a zenith on the late afternoon of December 19th, 1887. The details of the incident differ but the end result was the same. Trimble and Ramsey met their deaths but not at the hands of each other.
One of the best descriptions of the incident can be found in the pages of the Louisiana Journal printed in Homer, Louisiana. The paper described the event as “one of the saddest and most deplorable tragedies that ever occurred in this section of the state”.
An encounter occurred between James A. Ramsey and J.E. Trimble yesterday evening about 5:30 which proved fatal to both parties. There was bad feeling between them, caused from a political speech made by Ramsey in November and a subsequent denunciation of Ramsey by Trimble through the pages of the Gazette on last Saturday. Another difference arose between them involving the veracity of one of the two in regard to some remarks about a respectable family . . .the relatives of this family in their efforts to trace the origin of the remark brought Ramsey and Trimble together in Stein’s store with some 18 to 20 men having also gathered there. After a few words of dispute Trimble drew his revolver, placed it within a few inches of Ramsey’s breast and fired, this shot penetrating the heart. The second and only shots fired by Trimble entered near Ramsey’s left hip, causing only a flesh wound. Ramsey’s efforts to draw his revolver were a failure. It cannot be ascertained who fired upon Trimble, as every chamber of Ramsey’s revolver contained its charge and was never drawn by him. In all some 6 to 8 shots were fired. Trimble’s weapon examined after the affair was found to contain every charge but two.
In the moment after Trimble’s first shot a complete volley followed with almost indistinguishable rapidity. The crowd made an effort to scatter, but the firing was over before they moved any distance. Ramsey eased himself down upon the floor and Trimble fell, full length upon his back. Trimble was shot through the left arm above the elbow and through the right arm above the elbow and one ball entered the left temple penetrating the brain. Both died in a few moments of each other.
A jury’s inquest was held, which reported that Ramsey came to his death by a shot fired from a pistol in the hands of J.E. Trimble and that Trimble came to his death by shots fired from pistols in the hands of unknown parties.
James E. Trimble died 28 years after arriving in Union Parish. He served Farmerville, Union Parish and North Louisiana in several positions and served them well. He was a cultured and educated gentleman, loyal to his political beliefs and diligent to the use of the judicial branch in the defense of the common man.
His motto for his paper, The Farmerville Gazette, “Be Just and Fear Not” is a fitting description of the Pennsylvania Republican who spent his adult life in the hill country of North Louisiana fighting those who feared not him personally, but the brand of politics he was such a proponent of.
Cathy Buckley is a native of Union Parish and lifelong citizen of Shiloh. She served as Principal of Spearsville High School for many years until her retirement. Cathy is now the director of the Bernice Depot Museum and a active member of the Bernice Historical Society.
Sources: In addition to those listed within the article
- Testimony Taken By the Sub Committee of Elections in Louisiana; 41st Congress, 1870.
- Biographical Record Kappa Alpha Society, Williams College.
- Louisiana Baptist, August 11, 1859
- James William Mobley, “The Academy Movement in Louisiana”, 1931.
- Reports of the Committees of the Senate of the United States, Louisiana Investigation, 42nd Congress, 1872 -1873.
- Louisiana Affairs, Report of the Select Committee on that Portion of the President’s Message Relating to the Condition of the South, 1875.
- Papers of U.S. Grant, John Simon, editor. 1873
- Louisiana Contested Elections, 1870.
- The Louisiana Election, New York Times, November 3, 1874.
- Ouachita Telegraph, October 12, 1877, “Judge Trimble in Trouble”
- Graham Family Papers, Louisiana Tech Special Collections, Box 5
- Ouachita Telegraph, December 24, 1887, “Shot Dead”.
- James A. Ramsey Personal Correspondence, Louisiana Tech Special Collections, Box 002.
- New York Times, December 21, 1887,”Facts Developed at the Farmerville Inquest”.